Speeding tickets and sovereignty threats – this week’s Weekly One has me riled up! Then have a New York Times opinion piece openly advocate giving North St. Louis County municipalities more power to “inflict pain” on citizens to offset the pain they inflict on other citizens… and you’ve got a Weekly One that spilled over into a blog post!
Truth is, a lot of our criminal and civil justice system needs fixing. I support fixes that are consistent with the spirit of my concluding two paragraphs, not with the status quo or with attorney Alec Schierenbeck’s… ahem… suggestion.
Here was Prof Adam Grant’s Tweet (@AdamMGrant) that brought this article into my life and into your Weekly One newsletter:
“It’s unfair that the rich and the poor pay the same fines for offenses. In Finland and Argentina, fines for littering and speeding are fractions of your income. A simple way to improve justice and deterrence, and boost government revenue”
Then Adam Grant shared a New York Times opinion piece by lawyer Alec Schierenbeck, which makes that case. Here are some key excerpts from the article:
What would replace fixed fines? “The most common [alternative model to flat fines], the ‘day fine,’ scales sanctions to a person’s daily wage. A small offense like littering might cost a fraction of a day’s pay. A serious crime might swallow a month’s paycheck. Everyone pays the same proportion of their income.”
How far have other country’s gone? “Does this mean we should slap Mr. Zuckerberg with a $1 million speeding ticket? Finland would. In 2015, it handed a [rich] businessman a $67,000 speeding ticket for going 14 miles per hour above the limit.” Article clearly states we should not go this far.
On the impact of fines: “For people living on the economic margins, even minor offenses can impose crushing financial obligations, trapping them in a cycle of debt and incarceration for nonpayment. In Ferguson, Mo., for example, a single $151 parking violation sent a black woman struggling with homelessness into a seven-year odyssey of court appearances, arrest warrants and jail time connected to her inability to pay.”
On the goal of fines (1): “Equity requires punishment that is equally felt.”
On the goal of fines (2): “Flat fines also fail to meet basic goals of punishment, like retribution and deterrence. Punishment is partly an expression of a society’s desire to inflict pain on those who break the law. But giving wealthy offenders a mere slap on the wrist makes a mockery of that objective.”
On the goal of fines (3): “Plus, scaled fines might encourage more equitable prosecution. … Ferguson… went easy on wealthier residents but treated poor people like cash cows. After all, the city would get more bang for its buck pulling over a rich driver with a blown blinker.”
It seems dearest Alec and possible dear Adam have much thirst for vengeance, retribution, and the proportionate inflicting of pain.
As well as thirst for revenue:
On expediency and revenue: “…progressive fines could increase debt collection rates and reduce the attendant costs of nonpayment, like warrants, arrests and court appearances. Government revenue could even rise, all while… lowering the burden of criminal justice debt on the poor.”
St. Louis sticking points
Since this article uses the St. Louis area as an example, I’ll start by focusing on St. Louis, where I live.
Under Alec Schierenbeck’s premise, quality of life in St. Louis should be suffering because dentists and businessmen run amok. His premise requires that wealthier St. Louisans flout the law, litter, and violate civil laws because fixed fines don’t deter them.
But wealthy areas of St. Louis are not bursting with litter, suffering from a public urination scourge, and aren’t scary places plagued by rich, law flouting citizens and drivers. Nor are poorer areas suffering from the rich coming into those areas and littering or breaking civil laws.
Progressive fines for basic civil violations will not make life in the St. Louis area better. But they could quite easily make it worse.
Lowering fines on civil violations like littering, aggressive panhandling, and public urination could easily make chaotic poorer areas worse. Further, it could end up neutering the civil code and plunging orderly low-income areas into chaos.
And in the St. Louis area, those big fines for the rich won’t boost revenue. Rather, they’ll clog up the courts. A doctor will pay a $100 parking or speeding ticket. But she’ll spend $600-800 on a lawyer to fight a $1500 ticket in court. That necessitates officers spend more time in court talking about taillights and less time on the streets. If every ticket is an afternoon in court and a fight, police might ticket fewer rich citizens, not more.
Alec, in St. Louis (and Ferguson) we all already know three things:
- It is hard to even get a speeding ticket in St. Louis City.
- Much of North St. Louis County (which includes Ferguson) uses absurd, persecutory ticketing regimes to gain revenue and prop up dysfunctional municipal governments.
- And, rich or poor, nobody speeds near the airport (working class), in Rock Hill (middle class), or in parts of Town and Country (well-off) because all those cops love to write tickets.
A better solution for the people of Missouri and Ferguson
But what if we abandon the idea that justice equals making speeding dentists feel more pain? What would actually help our society? And what would help that woman in Ferguson who suffered jail and homelessness over a parking ticket?
I believe something very different than Alec. I suggest a reform that reduces the government’s ability to inflict catastrophic or persecutory pain on its citizen!
A more equitable solution for Missouri would be a state-wide cap on how much of a municipality’s revenue can derive from tickets and fines. It should contain both a per-capita resident limit and a percentage limit to avoid abuse. Anything collected over that amount could go to fund public defenders and to set up a network of trained, non-attorney advocates to provide monetary help to those who face catastrophic life disruption from state or municipal fines.
That would help everyone living under a persecutory civil violation ticketing regime. And it would limit government’s power to inflict pain on the vulnerable – not increase the government’s power to hurt the well-off and call that societal progress.
Big Picture: Jefferson and Madison or Lenin and Marx
There are two bigger ideas at play here. One in the New York Times opinion piece, and one in my alternative solution. They relate to who is sovereign, where power comes from, and what a law’s goal can be.
One of the primary purposes of wealth – of the right to own private property – is to give protection and security to the citizen who owns that wealth. Alec Schierenbeck’s “Day Fine” plan explicitly desires to rebalance societal power between the citizen and the government by increasing the government’s power to inflict pain on citizens. Even if it is used overseas by other types of non-authoritarian government, it is a threat to our American system because it violates the American idea of who is sovereign. I believe the goal he describes is Marxist-Leninist in its desire inflict pain and to legally codify class-division and unequal treatment. We should be working to eliminate laws that explicitly treat people unequally; that should be the low-hanging fruit in reform.
In America, the state is not sovereign, the people are.
In America, your rights come from God, from Natural Law. And you’ve been kind enough to lend power to the government to take care of things that you don’t want to deal with on a daily basis. And you’ve chosen to pay for government so it can do these few specific things well. And you get to choose who runs the government, then they hire people to fill jobs that they’ve been tasked with getting done. That is our whole system. When the government forgets to be grateful and to serve, bad things happen: The minister of government who has borrowed his power from you and with your assent begins to believe that this power is his own. In America, where the people are sovereign, that power is not his own. It is yours.
It has never been more important to remember that our rights come from God, not government – and to fire anyone in government who is arrogant enough to believe otherwise or who wishes to subvert this essential part of the American experiment in Liberty.